Michael's distinguished journalistic career began in time-honoured fashion, on regional newspapers, the Lymington Times & New Milton Advertiser, before he moved to London (sharing a flat with legendary sports writer Ian Wooldridge) and worked on the news desk of the London Evening News and the Evening Standard.
He covered politics, scandal and sport, but was also highly motivated by social justice—in his recent memoir, My Life in the News (Merlin Unwin), he recounts how his life changed when, as a young boy, he went to the cinema to see what he thought would be swashbuckling images of the Second World War only to be confronted by awful images of the liberation of Belsen.
During his career with the BBC, he reported from terrifying situations in Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland and a hijacking in the Jordanian desert, but his worst experience was Aberfan. He also presented the Today programme on Radio 4—and was still doing so when he was persuaded to become the third editor of Horse & Hound, in 1973 (for a while he juggled both jobs, arriving at the magazine office straight from the BBC studios).
Michael Clayton had always loved his hunting and a major lure at H&H was the perk of a company hunter, Foxford, and later, famously, Josephine. Despite his lanky height, he was a competent (and brave) horseman, which was just as well, as often when visiting packs someone would think it funny to mount him on a just-broken, cold-backed four-year-old. He was also self-deprecating, recounting with good humour the occasions when he was bucked off at second horses or roared at by an MFH who instructed him to jump a massive hedge backwards after he had been carted over it.
Those of us who worked for him at H&H received a priceless education in the art of news management, sports reporting and imaginative presentation on a high-pressure Monday press day. Michael himself, however, was not gifted with technology, although he understood what it could do—he once faxed his bank statement to the printers only for it to come back typeset with the galleys that evening. He did, however, win respect for the fact that he knew better than anyone else how to edit copy; this came in handy when he found himself producing the magazine pretty much single-handed during an NUJ strike (he had long been kicked out of the union).
During Michael Clayton's tenure, H&H was pretty much the only place to buy a horse or find comprehensive results, and it was in the heyday of equestrian reporting, with household names such as David Broome and Harvey Smith, Princess Anne, Capt Mark Phillips and Richard Meade; he was also hugely influential, with the ear of the movers and shakers in the horse world, and circulation hit the 90,000s. He was not afraid to tackle sacred cows and his biting analyses, including of the British team's disastrous 1992 Olympics, were must-reads. He was also extremely funny and a nerveless speaker.
Michael's easy courtesy and classless voice meant that he was a valuable advocate for hunting, even if he was a target for antis; after he broke his leg in the hunting field, a letter arrived in the office saying 'pity it wasn't your neck'. He did, however, get frustrated by the lack of joined-up thinking—in the horse world generally—and was an advocate of hunting people attracting less attention to themselves long before the ban. He swapped his top hat for a crash hat long before many of his peers and campaigned, among other things, for the wearing of protective headgear. He also helped to introduce the 'horse whisperer' Monty Roberts to Britain.
His career at what was then IPC Magazines ended with the role of editor-in-chief (1994-97), with responsibility for the countryside group of magazines, including Eventing, which he bought. He was also chairman of the British Horse Society, a founder member of the Press Complaints Commission, chairman of the British Society of Magazine Editors, chairman of the British Horse Industry Confederation, regional chairman of the Countryside Alliance and continued to write books, virtually up until his death. In retirement, he became a bridge enthusiast, which proved a useful outlet for his great intellect.
Michael Clayton, who was always excellent company, remained keenly interested in proper journalism and the horse world, and was a wise and kind mentor to his former employees. We extend our deepest sympathies to his widow, Marilyn, who was his dearest and devoted companion for nearly 35 years, and to his children Marcus and Maxine and step-daughter Georgina. A private funeral has taken place.
[See also Pippa Cuckson's obituary in H&H, December 29 issue)